OF THE SIERRA NEVADA FOOTHILLS
Ponderosa Pine, Pinus ponderosa
Often called Yellow Pine, this is the most common and widely distributed of western conifers, and in the foothills is the main tree over large areas. Growing up to 225 feet high, its needles grow in bundles of three or sometimes two and three on the same tree. Its needles are 5-10-inches long. Below you can see that Ponderosas are slender trees with open crowns and with long, straight trunks. Pondersosa cones are oval, 3-6 inches long, with each scale tipped with a stiff prickle. On mature trees the bark breaks into bright reddish-orange, irregular, scaly plates. One unusual feature, shown in the picture below, is that the plate scales fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces -- a good fieldmark for identification purposes.
Sugar Pine, Pinus lambertiana
This tree is famous for being the tallest American pine (up to 200 feet) and for producing the longest cones of any American conifer (up to 26 inches long). In the picture below notice how the trees tend to have horizontal branches more or less in whorls. The needles of Sugar Pines grow in bundles of five. The trees' green color is slightly gray. In the picture below both trees are Sugar Pines but the branches coming in from the left belong to a Ponderosa Pine, and you can see that the Ponderosa's branches are slightly greener.
Digger Pine, Pinus sabiniana
West of Sacramento, Digger Pines occur up to about 2600 feet, so these are the foothills' "low elevation pines." Relative to other pine species in the area they like it hot and dry, and they look their part. As the pictures show, the tree's needles, which appear in bundles of three, are more grayish than other pines, and so stiff and slender as to appear wispy and diffuse from a distance. In the picture below, the greener pine before the Digger is a young Ponderosa. Diggers are much smaller trees than the above two species, seldom reaching over 60 feet tall, plus their trunks, far from being monumental and straight as the above species, often are crooked and forked. However, even smaller trees can produce massive cones in which are produced large seeds once much cherished by Native Americans, and still of enormous importance to a wide variety of wildlife.
A while back someone asked what they should do about a Digger Pine leaning badly over a road. I asked my friend Fred, whose family has been cutting pine in the foothills for years, and here is what he told me about leaning Digger Pines:
My wife & I live on 120 acres of brush and forest in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Placerville, CA. We have many digger pines on our property, many of which are leaning. That seems to be the way they like to grow.
My parents also live on the property, which my grandparents obtained in 1938. My dad is an old logger and woodcutter, and at 85, has more experience than I do, since I'm only 50. So I consulted him.
He told me he doesn't recall seeing any live digger pines ever fall on our property, even though many are leaning quite precariously. The root systems do go deep into the subsoil looking for water - that's why they're so tolerant of our hot, dry summers.
However, we have seen live, leaning digger pines with a lot of heavy growth break off halfway up the trunk. So that would be more likely to happen if anything happens at all.
Another factor is soil. If the roots are in rocky soil, the tree is less likely to fall than if it were in soft, loose, damp soil.
As a teenager I split plenty of digger pine rounds into firewood. I can tell you from experience that the wood is pitchy, fibrous and very difficult to split.
And it's useless for lumber. While making some lumber from Ponderosa pines on our property 43 years ago, my dad sawed up several digger pines. As the lumber dried, it twisted and warped so badly that it was totally useless. So he tried cutting more digger pine lumber, stacked it to dry, and parked his big heavy bulldozer on top of the lumber pile. The lumber stayed flat - but it warped out to the sides, again so badly that he couldn't use it for anything but firewood.
The only way he could profit from the trees that needed harvesting on our property was to cut it into 20" veneer blocks and sell them to a place that shaved the blocks down into 1/8" thick veneer, which was cut into strips and used to make boxes for produce. This was 45 or 50 years ago.